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St. Catherine of Siena’s life reveals why we need to take children more seriously

Catherine of siena

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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 04/24/22

Kids are not simply adults-in-training; they are people in their own right who provide an example we all need.

Children are easy to dismiss. They’re small. They often wear excessive costume jewelry and princess costumes in public, thinking they look amazing. Later, back home, they disappear as royalty into the yard to play and dig, scratching at the soil with the plastic tip of a bejeweled tiara. They don’t hold jobs with a salary and so they have little purchasing power. My own daughter keeps her life savings in a Cinderella purse.

Children have a tendency to mispronounce words. Their socks rarely match and their hair is often tangled. Because of this, we older folk mistakenly value children only for their potential. We dream about what they might become once they’re older, more mature, more adult. Sure, we love them, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to taking them seriously.

This is a mistake.

Children very much make a unique contribution.

Children are not simply adults in training.

I find that my own children possess a vanishingly rare combination of emotional empathy and the willingness to follow up on what they’ve intuited. I’ll always remember, for instance, how on the day of my grandfather’s funeral, my eight-year-old son sat by my grieving grandmother all day long and let her hug him the entire time. This boy, who is always so dirty and disheveled on a daily basis that I’m convinced he’s literally composed of snails and puppy dog tails, suddenly transformed into a perfect gentleman.

Another incident I’ll never forget is the time our daughter lost her first tooth. I failed to put tooth fairy money under her pillow that night. Our other daughter, who was probably only 9 or 10 at the time, without any fuss and without telling us, noticed our error and slipped a 10 dollar bill under her sister’s pillow. It was all the money she had in the world.

These are stories I want to remember — not because they’re amusing anecdotes about the cute things children do — but because they’re expressions of a rich inner life and depth of feeling that I hardly suspected existed. Just writing about them brings a tear to my eye, so beautiful are the hearts of these little ones.

Children have a different understanding of what’s serious than adults do, and I’m becoming more and more convinced that children have the better half of the argument. What we adults blow off as unimportant is exactly where children are looking more closely. It’s worth taking in their viewpoint.

A saint who trusted

Later this week is the feast of St. Catherine of Siena. St. Catherine is famous for her boldness in chastising the pope. She had an almost childish impudence, to tell one of the most powerful men in the world that he needed to shape up. It was just like her, though. She always dreamed big, even as a little girl.

Growing up in a large family, she somehow managed to use her imagination to escape the chaos of a household full of siblings to spend quiet time with God. She always took God very seriously. When he spoke, she listened. She listened in the way only a child can listen.

Many young children rashly vow to never marry, but when Catherine made that same vow, she meant it. From age seven, she had religious visions and often fasted from food as a spiritual discipline. She secretly took a vow of virginity and as a sign of sincerity cut off her hair just like women do when they enter a convent. Her parents punished her for destroying her hair until she revealed her vow. It turns out, her seemingly mischievous childish action was quite serious.

Her parents permitted her to become a Dominican tertiary – a vowed religious who continues to live at home — at the age of 16. She wore the distinctive Dominican religious dress and stayed in a small room in the family home where she spent three years praying before going out to serve the sick and poor. People began visiting Catherine for advice and to witness her example. She was not a young person to be dismissed.

What is it that makes children so capable of super-human feats of love and devotion?

Perhaps the answer is as simple as trust. Children trust their parents implicitly. Mom and Dad are heroes to them. God the Father is to be adored and loved, trusted in all things. So when someone like St. Catherine hears God calling her to a religious life, she naturally and fully trusts that this is the life for her.

We adults aren’t so good at trusting. Faced with a similar call to a vocation, I waffled and doubted and considered it for years. Once I accepted the call, it became obvious how happy it was to follow God’s plan for me. It made me regretful that I hadn’t trusted him right away. I was skeptical and lazy about my vocation, all the while telling myself it was mature to hold back and weigh my options.

Adults are distracted by our questions, ego, and frustration about how the world is such a mixture of good and bad. We cannot get past the times in our past when we’ve been disappointed, so we become jaded. When God calls us, we hesitate. We don’t take him seriously.

Maybe if we adapt a slightly more child-like viewpoint, we’ll live with more hope and trust. We’ll take more chances and say yes to more opportunities. If nothing else, we can become more attentive to those seemingly insignificant details of our lives that are actually extremely important. This is what children see with such clarity. Someday, I’ll grow up to be just like them.

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